This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston.
Science can only advance if we engage, excite and promote the scientific discoveries of the next generation of young scientists. Many of them become exposed to science for the first time in middle school or high school, and science fairs give them a chance to talk about their projects. Although I never had the chance to participate in a science fair as a child, I imagined how I would feel today if I worked on a science project for an entire summer (or maybe even a whole year). I would probably think that my project was the greatest one ever, and I would hardly be able to contain the excitement of sharing my ideas and findings at the next science fair!
Amazingly enough, this is the exact reaction I got from the presenters when judging science fairs over the years. I was at first unsure how this experience would be, and whether I could relate to them on a personal level. And although the students kept thanking me for volunteering my time to be a judge, I am the one who should be thankful. I learned so much from them, and they reminded me why I fell in love with science in the first place. I also realized that, somewhere along the way, the excitement and curiosity about my own research had vanished among all the stresses of what it meant to be a graduate student or postdoc doing research in today’s world dominated by lack of funding and hypercompetition.
While judging science fairs over the years, I have always been very impressed with the ingenuity and excellence of the projects presented (I definitely was not as creative at doing science as these students are today!), and also with the excitement of these young scientists to share their ideas. But seeing how they think about doing science has left me with many questions. When have we lost our desire to pursue science for the sake of science? What happened to original projects, done for the mere sake of satisfying one’s curiosity? Where has the desire to perform excellent, reproducible science gone in today’s world? And finally, where is our excitement for science that we once had?
In March 2017, I had yet another great experience judging high school projects at the duPont Manual Regional Science and Engineering Fair at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, KY. This year, the fair included students from both duPont Manual High School and Meyzeek Middle School. Meyzeek Middle School has a Mathematics/Science/Technology (MST) Magnet Program. As part of this program, students investigate content-rich focus questions that encourage them to work, read, talk, and write like scientists. Students also complete at least two independent research projects for the Science Fair during their tenure at Meyzeek, with many students going on to compete at the regional, state, and national level. duPont Manual High School is one of only three schools in the US to host it’s own accredited regional science fair, which sends successful projects to the Kentucky Science & Engineering Fair (KY-SEF) and the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). ISEF is organized each year by the Society for Science & the Public, and is the leading science competition for U.S. high school students. Out of all of the high schools in the world, duPont Manual has sent the most students to this prestigious event!
During this experience, I judged posters presented by students from duPont Manual High School. In the Cellular and Molecular Biology section, the students presented posters with many modern techniques which I probably only did for the first time in graduate school. While not always allowed to perform these techniques themselves, they have been exposed to or learned about confocal microscopy, tissue sectioning, immunostaining, injection of stem cells into mice, maintaining and generating Cre/Lox mouse lines, growing and maintaining various cell types including neurons, as well as performing PCR and Western blots. Particular projects in this category included looking at axon growth, bone loss, glaucoma, and liver cancer, among others.
Clearly, these are scientists of tomorrow. And from this high school science fair, but also from having judged other such events over the years, I have come to appreciate our duty to encourage and promote the ideas of these budding future scientists. I want to make sure that the voices of young children with an interest in science are counted and given a chance to be heard.
More importantly, I am left wondering what kind of scientific environment we are creating for these bright young minds, so many of whom had told me enthusiastically just last month that they really want to attend graduate school? As an experienced scientist, I feel a sense of duty to improve the scientific system for them. If we don’t, we will have disappointed a lot of young children who think that doing science for the sake of science is what they are getting into. And if this isn’t true, we must change science to make it so. We must all play a part in cultivating the interests of these budding future scientists, celebrating their success every step of the way, and creating an environment in which they can thrive in their own scientific pursuits.
Picture from the duPont Manual Regional Science and Engineering Fair at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, KY, on March 11, 2017.